“Sometimes I wish they’d ask for my wisdom more often–there are so many things I could tell them; things I wish they would change. But they don’t want change. Life here is so orderly, so predictable–so painless. It’s what they’ve chosen.“–The Giver, Lois Lowry (pp. 130).
If given the choice between a life that’s painless or vibrant, which would you choose?
In The Giver, Lois Lowry presents a society that seems nearly perfect. Every person in the community is provided for; each one has a job, a home, food, and healthcare. Family units are assigned with careful consideration, and job placements are chosen by elders according to people’s skills and temperaments.
Even though the speakers blare with announcements any time someone breaks a rule, Lowry creates an atmosphere of safety rather than fear. This isn’t an oppressive dystopian world. This is a community where every family is bonded together, where feelings are shared nightly at the dinner table, and where everyone seems content. How could they not be? In a world with no suffering, no uncertainty, and only minor pain, who wouldn’t be content?
Only after the elders choose Jonas to be the next Receiver do we begin to see the issues buried beneath the surface of the practical, orderly world. Only when Jonas meets the Giver and takes on memories of days long past does he begin to realize what’s missing in his community.
Color and Pain
The Receiver has the job of holding all the memories of the community. These memories include happiness and beauty long lost to Jonas and his neighbors. Snow and sunshine have disappeared with the useful Climate Control system. Holidays celebrated with extended family around the fireplace are a forgotten concept. When Jonas first recognizes colors, he’s shocked by them. Sameness pervades his community, and so only he and the Giver experience the joys of color, warmth, and even love.
But with these joys comes the burden of pain. Memories of war, hunger, loneliness, and fear pierce the souls of the Giver and Jonas. They alone share the suffering of remembering a time when disorder and destruction were common.
By giving us the contrast of a painless but colorless present and the painful but vibrant past, Lowry challenges us with the question, which is better? She lets Jonas wrestle with the dilemma, is the color worth the pain? Is love worth the suffering?
Is the ability to choose worth the risk of choosing wrong?
Joy, Sorrow, and Choice
As Lowry shows us how joy and sorrow are connected, she also reminds us of the importance of choice.
So many of the best things in life involve risk. With love comes the risk of rejection and loss. With success comes the risk of failure. Our ability to experience joy necessitates that we also have the ability to experience sorrow. The two emotions both rise from the same heart, and so you can’t cut off the ability to feel pain without losing something of joy as well.
And choice plays a large role in that. We as people face choices daily. We get to decide what we say and do; whether we’ll open ourselves up or hide ourselves away. As we make choices, we’re forced to face the results. Sometimes the result is joy; sometimes it’s hurt. Just to complicate the matter, sometimes the painful choice is the right one, and the easier choice is wrong.
With all these things, we see that life is messy. But these messy choices, the complicated emotions we face, are what make us human. A full, vibrant life requires the ability to choose for ourselves, to experience both joy and sorrow, and to face risks and their consequences.
Maybe life would be simpler if someone else made our choices for us. Maybe if someone with more wisdom provided for all our needs and told us what to do, there wouldn’t be so much suffering in the world.
But Lowry suggests that such a simple, safe life would also rob us of part of ourselves.
The variety of the world, all our differences, all our experiences and emotions may make life more challenging, but it also makes life worth living. The beauty of life lies in it’s color–not in the safe and practical but in the messy, emotional, vibrant rollercoaster of humanity. At the end of the day, what matters most isn’t the safety of our existence. What matters most is the meaning our existence.
I’ll give you a hint: we don’t exist simply to keep existing. We were created with a purpose.
Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV), ” ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
We were created with the ability and purpose to love.
So I ask again, if given a choice between a painless life and a vibrant one, which would you choose?